Outsourcing our memory to digital devices may actually be beneficial

2022-08-01

Does anyone remember phone numbers anymore? Or have all these little bits of information you used to memorize moved onto digital devices such as smartphones? Some have argued this outsourcing of our memory is damaging our ability to remember anything properly, but a new study suggests that is not the case. Using a digital device to remember some things may actually be freeing up our brains to remember more things overall. Unless of course, we lose our smartphones …

Around a decade ago German neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer coined the term “digital dementia.” Spitzer warned the overuse of digital devices could lead to a novel kind of cognitive decline. By outsourcing many short-term memory demands to devices such as smartphones, he proposed our ability to remember things can be damaged, resulting in a unique kind of amnesia.

But the idea of digital dementia was initially proposed without any real science backing it up and some scientists have suggested using devices to store random bits of information can actually help improve our cognitive abilities by freeing up space to think about other things. Chris Bird, a cognitive neuroscientist from the University of Sussex, recently compared the way we use smartphones to the way we used to jot things down on notepads.

“We have always offloaded things into external devices, like writing down notes, and that’s enabled us to have more complex lives,” Bird explained to The Guardian. “I don’t have a problem with using external devices to augment our thought processes or memory processes. We’re doing it more, but that frees up time to concentrate, focus on and remember other things.”

A new study, led by researchers from University College London, offers some good evidence to suggest using digital devices to store information can actually free up your memory to remember other less important things.

The researchers developed a unique memory game that presented volunteers with a dozen numbered circles on the screen of a tablet. Each circle had to be dragged to either the right or the left side of the screen. If the circle was dragged to the correct side the volunteer would receive a small financial reward.

Half of the circles were classified high-value, meaning they would pay out 10 times more than the regular circles. The volunteers repeated the game a number of times, and had to remember where to drag the circles to receive the greatest reward.

On the first half of the trials, subjects were tasked with using their own memory, while on the second half they were allowed to set a small amount of reminders on a digital device. Unsurprisingly, most subjects used the digital reminders to mark the location of the high-value circles. But not only did their results improve on high-value circle placements when they set digital reminders, most participants also improved on low-value circle placements with no reminders set.

Sam Gilbert, senior author on the new study, says this finding highlights the way using digital devices to store important information can free up mental space to remember lower-order information. So instead of the device impairing people’s ability to remember other things, it actually increased their ability to remember more things overall.

“This was because using the device shifted the way that people used their memory to store high-importance versus low-importance information,” explained Gilbert. “When people had to remember by themselves, they used their memory capacity to remember the most important information. But when they could use the device, they saved high-importance information into the device and used their own memory for less important information instead.”

The findings were not all good news, though. When the subjects using digital devices set with reminders for high-value circles had their devices removed they struggled to remember anything beyond the low-value circle placements. This suggests when information is stored on a digital device a person entrusts that information to the device. And if the device is withheld then that information is likely to be gone.

This does highlight one major difference between using a digital device to store information and writing it down in a notepad. A large body of research has effectively shown that writing something down on a piece of paper activates a complex neural process that helps strongly encode memory. So writing something down on a piece of paper often means you will remember that thing even without needing to check back over your notes.

But using a digital device to remember information does not work in the same way. And here Gilbert notes the catch. For very important information he suggests we use “back up” storage, such as maybe writing an extra note down somewhere. Maybe it’s a valuable password or a crucial phone number. But as long as we have extra backup, there isn’t necessarily a problem with offloading information onto digital devices.

“The results show that external memory tools work,” Gilbert noted. “Far from causing ‘digital dementia,’ using an external memory device can even improve our memory for information that we never saved. But we need to be careful that we back up the most important information. Otherwise, if a memory tool fails, we could be left with nothing but lower-importance information in our own memory.”

The new study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

New Atlas, 1 August 2022
; https://newatlas.com